Saturday, June 30, 2012

Caps Free Agent Primer

July 1 is the first day of free agency. What this means is that starting at noon, all the players without a current contract (or qualifying offer in the case of restricted free agents) are fair game to sign with whatever team they want. This year's potential big names are Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, while young defenseman Justin Schultz gave us an early taste of the games to be played before signing with Edmonton. So what does this mean for McPhee and the Capitals organization? If you believe what he says: A) Not much at all and B) You must be a recent fan.

By position, here is where Washington's roster stands as of this moment, with cap hits  in parentheses. Although all of the team's restricted free agents were extended qualifying offers, none of them have accepted and thus are not included.:

LW: Ovechkin ($9,538,462), Chimera ($1.75 mil)
RW: Brouwer ($2.35 mil), Ward ($3.0 mil)
C: Backstrom ($6.7 mil), Laich ($4.5 mil), Ribeiro ($5.0 mil), Johansson ($900k), Hendricks ($825k)
D: Alzner ($1.285 mil), Hamrlik (#3.5 mil), Orlov ($900k), Schultz ($2.75 mil), Erskine ($1.5 mil), Poti ($2.875 mil)
G: Holtby ($637,777), Neuvirth ($1.15 mil)

For those not willing to do the math, this leaves Washington with about $20.8 million to work with until they hit the new salary cap of $70.3 million. These numbers are of course subject to the new CBA, whenever that gets signed, but for now we work with the numbers we've got. That free space has to go toward signing the RFAs (whose qualifying offers currently come in at just under $8 million, and that number can be expected to go up) as well as any UFAs.

It's certainly worth noting that while Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson are both technically centers, they are often called to play on the wing. It is the general consensus that Johansson will play on the wing this year, while Laich's role may be a little murkier due to the emergence and relatively strong play of Mathieu Perreault, one of the team's RFAs. Speaking of RFAs, they are as follows: Mathieu Perreault, Jay Beagle, Mike Green, and John Carlson. The latter three are expected to re-sign and stay with the team, while Perreault may or may not be long for DC depending on other moves. What is obvious, though, is that there are some gaps at wing. Even if Laich, Johansson, and Hendricks play on wing, that leaves a hole on the top-6 forwards, and possibly a bottom-6 role as well if MP85 moves after all. Matias Sjogren still has a shot to make the roster, while Stanislav Galiev is a dark horse candidate to skip the AHL and go straight to the NHL. Long story short? Expect a move, either to sign one of the top available scoring forwards, like my personal favorite (of who is left) P.A. Parenteau, or via trade. Many out there are expecting McPhee to make a play for a top-4 defenseman, but there is little indication that is either a reality or a necessity. Personally, I would be shocked if the Caps added another defenseman, and actually expect one or more to be moved in a trade for a top forward or in a salary dump *cough*Erskine*cough* to make room for a free agent. That said, Sheldon Souray and Matt Carle are possibilities to rock the red in 2012.

Then again, McPhee really could just stand pat, resign all the RFAs, call up Sjogren, and call it a day. I don't even think that is a bad idea, personally. It would leave a ton of salary cap room in case things don't pan out and a trade or signing needs to be made later on in the season.

Game on, folks.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

From the Draft: Rounds 2-7

It's a shame what takes place here the rest of the season...

The NHL Draft is divided into two days. Day one consists solely of the first round, largely due to the additional time needed for trades, negotiations, constant adjustments of priorities based on remaining players, and the general pomp and circumstance that surrounds the entire event. In a normal year, this lasts three to four hours, 2012 being no exception. The second day comprises the remaining six rounds, where there is no parading around, most of the big trades are done, and teams have finalized their priorities and draft rankings accordingly.
Some of these look familiar. I wasn't able
to get near the big one that isn't so familiar.

GMs don't even bother to get up from their tables at this point. In a normal year, this lasts four to five hours: a bit longer than the first round solely because there are 180 more picks and it is expected that the GMs and scouts will deliberate for more than eight seconds before making a pick. This year's second through seventh rounds were scheduled to take place from 10am unil 3pm. By 1pm, most people were done shopping at the Consol Energy Center gift shop and trying to figure out what the hell just happened and why did they pay fifteen dollars to park next to a demolition zone (R.I.P. Mellon Arena). There was barely time to blink before picks were announced, and when a team took more than thirty seconds to make a decision, we just assumed a trade was in the works. It was nuts, and allegations of collusion were being thrown around. OK, I was the only one, but come on. *Almost* three hours? Shenanigans.

"Columbus, you're on the clock!" "Nash: YEAH, HOWSON!"
Luckily, the Caps were happy to take part, using all eight of their remaining picks, having traded away only their/Boston's/Colorado's second round pick to Dallas just last night. McPhee seems to have woken up from a haze he was in the past couple years, because he continued to address specific
organizational needs rather than...well, whatever the heck he has been doing since 2009, if not earlier. Below is a brief recap of the players drafted, with minimal info. I am not scout, and most of these guys will not see significant, if any, NHL time. Many of them will spend time in Hershey, though, and overall the consensus is that McPhee did pretty well. If you already know the basics because you have read the other 143 blogs out there going into far more detail, please, enjoy the pictures and leave some comments about how you think McPhee did and how you feel about the future of the organization compared to last week.

  1. Third Round: With their first
    "Seriously, are they still booing us? We're so in their heads."
    pick of the day, and 77th overall, the Caps went with Chandler Stephenson, a 5' 11" 190lb forward that can play center and wing. He describes himself as "an offensive forward...trying to change to a two-way forward [and] fix the defensive part of my game." His name was a no-show in the draft preview booklet handed to all in attendance,so there was a bit of head scratching by people like me who don't know much about anyone in juniors. By many accounts Stephenson is a capable player with future NHL potential. Still probably picked a little high, though.

  2. Fourth Round, pt. 1: The Caps had two fourth round picks, having received one from Winnipeg last summer in exchange for Eric Fehr (see my post from then for my feelings on that), and with the Jets' pick (#100 overall), McPhee opted for center Thomas Di Pauli. An 18 year-old two-way forward, he clocks in at 5' 11" and 188lbs. Much of the chatter surrounding Di Pauli was focused on his backstory, but more importantly his attitude and work ethic got high praise. With the right opportunities, natural skills, and coaching, that can translate to a future roster spot. It's hard not to root for a kid like that. If he does make the lineup, expect even more Pauly D references in the locker room. Mike Green will lose his mind.

    Malcolm Subban signing autographs for a bunch of
    people who were booing him only 18 hours earlier.
  3. Fourth Round, pt. 2: The Capitals own fourth rounder was number 107, where they added right winger Austin Wuthrich. The 6' 1" forward weighed in at 190lbs., and was also part of the U.S. national team development program, a growing theme among the day's picks. He and Di Pauli were teammates on the developmental squad, will play together at Notre Dame, and both heard their names announced by Washington's own GMGM. He got some good pixels on the twitters, and was the fourth forward in a row selected to play in DC's system.

  4. Fifth Round: At #137, the Caps finally got the memo and drafted a defenseman: 5' 11" Connor Carrick, weighing in at 185lbs, described as a mobile defenseman and strong skater with good instincts as a puck-mover. By this point in the draft, realistic expectations of making the NHL have pretty much tailed off, with only the exceptional proving people wrong. It might be just the nature of the talk surrounding the draft, and prognosticators wanting to focus on the good, but once again, there was a lot of solid chatter about McPhee's pick.

  5. Sixth Round: Right winger Riler Barber was the 167th overall selection. Yet another 5' 11" player, he is a liiittle heavier at 194, and kept pace with the trend of being a pleasing pick.

  6. Seventh Round, Episode IV: This one came courtesy of Calgary, part of an oooold trade way back in 2009. This pick was once called "future considerations," and those considerations were obtained for the possible services of Keith Seabrook (he plays for the Panthers' AHL team now). The 195th pick was used on Swedish defenseman Christian Djoos (that's Juice to you). He has a good bit of filling out to do, weighing a mere 158 while being as tall as pretty much everyone else picked. If you don't know what the height is... well I don't blame you for not really reading this far down.

    General Admission. Shame I couldn't get Admiral Admission seats.
  7. Seventh Round, Episode V: At #197 Washington was apparently still reading the "get defensemen" memo from the previous night, going with another blueliner. Unlike practically everyone else, Jaynen Rissling is what we call 'round here a "big-un." At 6' 4" and 223lbs., he is inexplicably described as "more of a physical player.” A big, physical defenseman. Maybe he should train Jeff Schultz a little bit.

  8. Seventh Round, Episode VI: Finally, at number 203, the pick acquired from host team Pittsburgh in exchange for the rights to Vokoun, Washington selected their first Russian,
    Honestly, it felt like they were trying to make ice again.
    I don't blame them for wanting to get out early.
    goaltender Sergei Kostenko. He followed the rules like most of the other kids, sized up at 5' 11" and 187lbs. He also provided one amusingly awesome story. When you don't really expect to go much higher than the fifth round, and you live on the opposite side of Earth, you tend not to make the trip to have a jersey thrown at you as the scouts and GM suck down coffee and whatever lunch they have left. Instead, you hang out with your buddy at home, tracking the internet like some schmuck fan to find out your fate. Sometimes, your buddy is a hockey player, too. In Kostenko's case, that buddy is a hockey player, and he is Capitals defenseman Dmitri Orlov. I imagine when they sober up from celebrating, Orlov will help him develop those goaltending skills by firing his already terrifying slapshot at him. Then again, they're in Russia. They might not wait to sober up.
Even if you're the last pick, in the draft, you are still an NHL draft pick, something that only about 210 kids a year, worldwide, get to say. That's special. That's life-changing. Not everybody can be Ovechkin (1st overall, 2004), and not everybody can be Patric Hornqvist (RW for the Predators, 230th overall, last pick, 2005, 80-69-149 in 263 NHL games), but they are all given the opportunity that so few who play and love the sport are. Congratulations to all of these kids, and they are still kids, and best of luck. I hope to see them all rock the red one day and make Lord Stanley proud.

Lean back, McPhee. You earned it this weekend.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

From the Draft: Round 1

Thanks to a bit of fortune, all of which is due to Jen, the woman behind the must-follow @NHLHistoryGirl twitter account, I was able to attend the NHL Draft tonight. I will be back there tomorrow morning, too. As you may have heard by now, the Capitals had a pretty good night. I would go as far as to say that June 22, 2012 might be known to me as "The Night that McPhee Redeemed Himself." If you have paid much attention to me at all over the past year, that should say a lot. Three big points of interest from the evening:

  1. The Trade. You know that whole second line center issue that has plagued Washington for years? That's settled now. In a steal of a trade, Cody Eakin and this year's second round pick were sent to the Dallas Stars in exchanged for Mike Ribeiro, their top scorer over the past five years. The second rounder was not much of a loss, since we only technically got it a couple weeks ago. Moving Eakin may hurt for a lot of people. He has grown to be a fan favorite, the ginger call-up, the Caps organization's answer to Ron Weasley. On top of that, he was one of the top prospects in the system, a kid with a lot of potential to make an NHL roster. Unfortunately, he seemed slated for a third line role in DC, and that particular line was facing a logjam, especially at center. Luckily for him, Dallas can use someone with his talents, and they will. While it may be sad to see him go, this is ultimately the best thing for him, because he will get a lot more playing time with the Stars, and that's what he needs to fully develop his skills. In return, McPhee was able to steal Ribeiro away. Why do I keep saying steal? Because Ribeiro is consistently good for 18-20 goals, at least 60 points, and about 150 shots on the season. Because his now former teammate tweeted this. Because he is 32, and he can be a bit of an agitator. Because he makes those around him better players. Just ask James Neal and Loui Eriksson. In short, he is a top-notch second line center, and precisely the kind of player the Caps can use at even strength and on the power play. Well done, McPhee
  2. The Unexpected Pick. With the 11th pick in the draft, the Caps chose Filip Forsberg, a winger that was the consensus pick as the top European forward player. He hails, as you may have guessed, from that hockey wasteland called Sweden (I mean seriously, has anyone good ever come from there...?). So why was it unexpected? Because damn near nobody had him making it out of the top ten, if not the top five. Seriously, as I sat there, fans in person and on Twitter kept predicting Forsberg would be picked next from about the 4th pick on. McPhee himself admitted he did not expect the young Swede would be available, so he had not really talked to him much prior to drafting him. It might also explain the lengthy delay the Caps team caused while deliberating their pick, a delay that apparently caught the ire of Bettman, who felt the need to rile up the yinzers by reminding Washington that they were on the clock. Drafting, especially in the first round, takes a lot of prep work, a lot of resarch, and just because someone of Forsberg's potential caliber is available does not make it a sure thing that he is the sort of player that fits into your team's plans. Look no further than him falling to 11th, and to the fact that the top ten picks were absolutely dominated by defensemen. McPhee's squad had to go through the unexpected, but pleasant, surprise of having to reevaluate their plans when Filip and supposedly-top-three pick Grigorenko (he would be chosen immediately after Forsberg) were still available. He is expected to be a top six forward within three years, if not two. 
  3. The Tough Guy. During the Finals, I mentioned to my friend Meesh (@HockeyMeesh, writer of CrosbyFTW and Kings blogger for The Hockey Writers...kid knows hockey and writing) that I wish the Caps would just play the same style as the Kings. He laughed, because obviously everybody wanted to play like the Kings, given their postseason rampage. Of course I knew that, and that it sounded stupidly obvious, but I believed the Caps had the roster ready to roll if only a coach would implement the system. He countered that the Kings had size that was severely lacking in Washington. Well, the Caps have a little more in the system now than they did yesterday. With the 16th overall pick, McPhee and company went with Thomas Wilson, a 6' 4", 203 lb. winger that was the consensus "toughest player" in the entire draft. The guy even won an award for best body checker! Toward the end of the season, he started to show a bit of a scoring touch, as well. Numerous comparisons were made to Milan Lucic, though some cautioned he might not have quite as much upside as the Bruin's notorious pest. Still, he is expected to be a top-level third liner, possibly a second line player. Even better? Wilson says he still has to fill out. This after a highlight reel was shown that drew a couple "oohs" from the crowd as some of his hits were shown.
Forsberg and Wilson will not have an immediate impact, and no matter what you think of a pick, they can surprise you. Here is hoping the two end up more like Backstrom and Lucic than Anton Gustafsson and Todd Ford. If so, McPhee just went a long way toward building an absolutely fearsome team in 2014-2015 in one night, and that is no small feat. Not to mention making a move that solves the 2C problem, starts to alleviate a crowded group of third line quality players, and gives one of those players the chance to flourish with a good team that claims to have wanted him for quite some time... it was a great night. The right players were moved and acquired, and with nary any controversy... and that is the kind of thing McPhee has not done for about two years now. I was impressed, I did not think he had it in him anymore. On to Rounds 2-7, where I'm sure more work will be done.

Oh, and this happened:

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Let's Try Something Different

Don't worry, I'm not going to do what everyone thinks I'm gonna do and FLIP OUT, man! At least not yet. Seriously, if you've read like even one post from this season, or more than two hockey tweets of mine, you'd know that I am far more shocked that the Caps season lasted as long as it did rather than ending in the second round. But before I start writing about all the problems and how to address them, I want to point out that there are a number of good things to look forward to for next season. Is that because I think it's a lot easier and quicker to talk about those than the bad stuff? Partially, yeah. Over the next few weeks I will probably have several posts for y'all about my thoughts on this season, individual players, management and coaching strategies, free agency, and of course next season. But for now:
  • Let's look at the fact that they did in fact make it to within a goal of the conference finals. Sure, we're all sick of Game 7 losses over the past... well, forever, but they did win their first-ever road game seven. They took out the defending champs. They held damn near even with the top team in the conference, and the rookie goalie matched the almost-certain Vezina winner shot-for-shot.
  • Expanding on that: You gotta believe we finally have a franchise goalie, a clear number one in Braden Holtby. Granted, I still think we did with Varlamov, but it is an accepted fact these days that between the coaching, management, and perhaps most importantly, the (lack of) medical care, Varly's future in DC was limited. Holtby was lights out, displaying skills and confidence nearly unseen in rookie goaltenders. If you think Neuvirth should still have any claim on the starting job, despite being the statistically worst goalie to wear a Caps jersey in every single season he has played, then GTFO and go watch another sport, we don't need you here in hockey land. I know this includes a majority of Washington bloggers, but these same people also expected a banner year for the team and think/thought that Fleischmann is a streaky hockey player (he has 82 points in 104 games since being traded).
  • The effectiveness of the team's commitment to "defense" (I am still not sure I'd go as far as saying the Caps are an elite defensive squad the way they give up shots and scoring chances) may be questionable at best, but it has showcased the team's talent for shot-blocking. In an ideal world, you don't want to ever have to block a shot, but knowing your guys can and will do so, and do it well, is great going forward.
  • Sophomore slumps happen. Just ask John Carlson, and to a lesser extent, Marcus Johansson. On a lot of teams in the league, their seasons wouldn't be considered disappointments. Be grateful that the Caps have a couple young players with such high expectations based fairly on the respective players' skills that an average season is considered a letdown. I have both of them pegged for big comeback seasons.
  • Goodbye to Dale Hunter. Last offseason, I was one of the people who was hoping he would in fact be called in to coach in place of Boudreau. I also thought, clearly incorrectly, that a guy with over 3,000 career points would be a bit more offensive minded in his coaching strategy with one of the most offensively talented teams in the league. It didn't take me long to retract my previous hopes and expectations about him, and he left the team almost immediately after Washington was eliminated. This is for the best, and it is a good sign that things will change, yet again.
  • Ovechkin showed signs of breaking out of his two season slump. He was scoring at a breakneck pace in the last quarter of the season, and he never really let up on his physical game, either. If nothing else good comes from this season, we do know that Ovechkin can play more defensively than people have given him credit for in the past, that his passion for winning has not diminished, and that his game is a bit more well-rounded than before. That all being said, here's hoping he puts that punk Stamkos in his place next year.
  • Chimera had a career season. I had him pegged as the team goat in my season preview, but he proved me wrong. So very wrong. The guy we saw on ice this season was the guy many thought McPhee got from the Blue Jackets a couple seasons ago. Chimera should be a lock for 3rd line left wing for the next couple seasons, and can hopefully continue to build on his surprisingly effective year.
  • America. Just thought I'd throw that in there. America is great. Don Cherry isn't from America.
  • Players like Jay Beagle are given the opportunity to display their worth in tight games. I still completely disagree with how much he was utilized given his limited skill set, but he showed that the team has a very solid fourth-line center signed and ready to go, and at this point any players that you know are a lock for a specific position are a huge help. Knowing what spots you have filled narrows down the spots in flux and figure out who is expendable elsewhere in the lineup. Kudos to Beags for his strong role playing and helping the team figure out one more piece of the puzzle along the way.
  • Stanislav Galiev may not yet be a name you all know. But he will be. He all but made a mockery of those around him in the QMJHL playoffs, and appears slated for a solid Caps training camp next preseason. Do not be surprised if (read: when) he gets a Caps sweater. He is Russian, he scores, and he has a personality. He is already active on twitter (@Galixon_97), and loves to self-promote. In short, he and Ovechkin will get along famously. Not to mention that other young Russian scoring phenom, Kuznetsov, would have someone else over here to convince him to leave the motherland behind in the coming years. Both youngsters have serious top-six potential in their first or second NHL seasons. All hope is not yet lost. It just might be delayed a bit.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Rangers-Caps Game 6 Preview

It should come as no surprise to anybody who has ever read my blog that I am somewhat of a Caps naysayer. I have had very little faith in this team since about Game 5 against Montreal. My lack of faith is something that many find disturbing, and I can only assure you that it is not because of the players on the team. Rather, it is because of the management and coaching staff. With the Bruins losing to the Caps in seven games, and should the Rangers do the same, nobody will suggest blowing up the teams or changing their game styles, yet that is what happened in 2010 with the Capitals. The hockey we are seeing today is the direct result of that, and I think that it is a bad thing for the organization.

I find it disingenuous to say that the Capitals are now playing a more defensive style of hockey while allowing the second-most SA/60 of the remaining playoff teams, allowing about 33 shots per game. This does not include the blocked and missed shots, of which there are many. The Caps have actually blocked more shots than any other team in this year's playoffs. Blocking shots is great, and demonstrates a great commitment to the team, to Holtby, and to winning. But great defense would lead to a decrease in shots blocked, shots against, and missed shots, because great defense actually prevents the other team from getting those shots in the first place. A lot of what we as Caps fans have faced over the past two seasons is nothing but lip service, a lie. The defense is as bad as ever. The goaltending during the playoffs, and the team commitment to shot blocking, is what is keeping the Caps going. It cannot and will not last forever. Look at Montreal. Do we really want to emulate their "success?" They beat the Caps and the Penguins in 09-10, and then... what? Oh right, nothing. Their system failed as soon as their goaltending stopped being unstoppable, because the defense really is not that good. This system leads to injuries, fatigue, and if you're lucky, razor-thin goal margins where any mistake by either team could be their last of the season.

Washington should absolutely keep their commitment to shot-blocking, it has served them well (Game 5 OT goal notwithstanding). But that should not be mistaken for defense. There is more to it than that. There is clearing the puck out of your own end, stick and body checking, clogging passing lanes, creating turnovers. There is also the defensive side of offense, such as preventing turnovers. The body checking has been superb of late, as well, and should also continue. The rest of that defense? Average in some areas, depressingly bad in others, especially the preventing turnovers area.

My Caps keys for success tonight? Here's five:
  1. Hit hard, hit often. Wear their guys down. Hendrick, Brouwer, Laich, Chimera, Ovechkin... this team can hit. They have the strength and endurance to outlast and brutalize the other team. They'll need it. Make them regret receiving that pass. Make them regret going after you along the boards. Make them regret lacing up their skates today. Make them "hear footsteps" every time they have a scoring chance. The Rangers are a great hockey club, it won't be easy, but nothing in the playoffs ever is.
  2. Shoot. The. Damn. Puck. On a night where the Rangers allowed multiple odd-man rushes, and Lundqvist had an off-night, stopping less than 90% of the shots he faced, the Caps only took 18 shots on net. They also had fewer shots miss the net and fewer blocked than the Rangers. Ovi, Backstrom, Green, Semin, and Laich, not to mention career-year Chimera and underrated threat Hendricks, and oh yeah, Knuble... they should be able to score against King Henry on a bad night. Half of them should be able to score on a good night, too. But you can't score if you don't shoot. Even strength, power play, shorthanded, it doesn't matter. Shoot the puck, shoot it often, shoot it from everywhere. Most of the Caps goals have actually come from the point. Imagine if they crashed the net and took hard angle shots, too. Shoot the puck.
  3. Limit Johansson's ice time, don't limit Knuble's. One of these guys has been a liability and had a pretty lackluster playoffs. The other is Mike Knuble. I really like MoJo on the wing, and I thought he had a pretty good year, much better than I expected from him. But he is so not a first line guy. His propensity to turn the puck over, whether it's an ill-timed drop pass, an ill-timed clearing attempt around the boards, an inaccurate pass, or bobbling a clean pass from someone else, has really hurt the team. Yet he logs some of the highest minutes at 20:01. He is a forwards-worst -6, behind only Wideman and Schultz for the team worst (they are both a -7). Knuble, on the other hand, has as many points as MJ90 in three fewer games, is a +3, and averages a pathetic and mind-boggling 9:37 per night. He is ridiculously more effective than Johansson, and his minutes really need to start reflecting that immediately. I would not be against sitting Marcus tonight in favor of Perreault or Halpern. He just is not getting it done. Any of it.
  4. Avoid the defensive shell. These are the playoffs, and the opponent is the top team in the conference. You cannot be happy with a one goal lead. Hell, a two goal lead is apparently not even remotely safe. Hunter cannot force the team into the shell to end all shells yet again if the Caps take a lead. They need to keep pressure on Lundqvist and wear out their players. Make them play the two minute shifts for a change. A goal or two is not enough. Every offensive zone faceoff needs to have at least three of the following: Backstrom, Ovechkin, Semin, Laich, Green, Carlson. Every one. Beagle should never see an offensive zone faceoff, ever. He has no offensive abilities whatsoever. Face it, move on from it, and accept it. He has been shockingly effective at moving the puck into the offensive zone, but not so great at doing anything when he is there. Don't leave him there, especially since HE HAS YET TO TAKE A SHOT IN THIS SERIES. Offense in the offensive zone, it really should not be a novel concept.
  5. The powerplay. Make it happen, cap'n. Dive. I don't care what anyone says, the Caps need to draw some penalties. And since diving penalties are apparently back out of style this postseason, do it. Pull a Marchand or two or seven. Find a way. Bite your lip in a scrum. These are the playoffs, and this could be the last game. Pride doesn't win you a damn thing. Don't think for a second that the Rangers won't do it. And when there is a powerplay? Wideman, Green, Hamrlik, Carlson. Those are your point guys. No forwards on the point. Period. Carlson and Green on the first powerplay, and on the point. Crazy successful there. Don't ignore it.
So what do I realistically think will happen tonight? A blowout, in true Caps fashion. 5-2 Rangers. That's less severe than the dream I had last night where the Caps lost 7-4 and had to use the Predators' backup goalie to finish the game.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Let's Have Some Common Sense

Rather than spout off endless tweets on the subjects, as I have been doing as of late, let me write a quick blog post about this: Jay Beagle is killing the Caps in these playoffs. Well, Dale Hunter's use of Beagle is killing the Caps in these playoffs. Jay Beagle, as many have written, is the feel-good story of this year's postseason. A hard-working kid who struggled to make even the fourth line, who got knocked out early on in the season, is now logging more time on ice than Alex Ovechkin. The Caps beat the Bruins and have held strong and even against the Rangers. But as the title of this post says, let's have some common sense here, people.

Jay Beagle is far and away NOT the reason the Caps are where they are at. Braden Holtby is the SOLE reason. That's it. He is this year's Jaroslav Halak. There is no other reason the Caps have won even a single, solitary game out of the past ten, let alone five of them. Hunter's use of Jay Beagle, on the other hand, is a major contributing factor to why the Caps lost last night, and why nine of the ten games have been one-goal games.

Beagle is absolutely not a player who will win you games. Anybody who tells you different, simply put, is an idiot. Even people who played with him will tell you as much when they're being honest. He is the kind of guy you put on the ice when you are playing not to lose. You know what is not a big story this year? How Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have their ice time limited when the Kings take a lead against the Canucks or Blues. You know why? BECAUSE IT DOESN'T HAPPEN. They score goals. They generate offense. Offense is how you get points, which are what actually win games, not defense. Defense helps because it prevents the other team from scoring, but a 1-0 loss is still a loss. Ask the Kings, they would know. Then they got Jeff Carter and started working on offense. The Caps need to take that lesson, as absolutely ludicrous sounding as it is to say that on a team with Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Mike Green, Mike Knuble... well the list of offensively talented guys goes on and on with this team.

I'm not knocking on Beagle. He has played far above my expectations for him. He has absolutely locked down the 4th line center role for next year, and that is an accomplishment for him. That's still an NHL job requiring NHL talent. But a guy who set a career high in games played with 41 and points with FIVE is not someone who should be logging top-three minutes. In these playoffs, Beagle has been on the top line. Your top line is not who you say it is, it's who you play as such. But he is a fourth-line guy with barely fourth-line skills. His effort is not to be questioned, ever. His love of the game and desire to win is not to be questioned, ever. His hockey skills absolutely need to be, but apparently are not, ever. Tim Thomas is a two-time Vezina winner. Lundqvist, based on his Hart nomination alongside his Vezina nod, is a lock for this year's Vezina trophy. You need to play your offensive players against these guys. ESPECIALLY when you are the lower seed. If Mathieu Perreault is healthy, then he has to be in these playoffs. Mike Knuble should not be playing (literally) half as much as Beagle. Beagle, of 2 points and a +1, averaging 18:47 of TOI a game, with one more SOG than Karl Alzner.

Beagle's ice time is indicative of a much larger time management problem that the team has suffered under Dale Hunter. Marcus Johansson's ice time also fits in, as he has looked fairly overwhelmed and mistake-ridden, yet logs an average of 20:31 a night. Keith Aucoin continues to play, despite a team-worst 43.2% in faceoffs, a -1, and having just two assists. While it is nice that Beagle is playing, and we should all be proud of him, we should all be furious that he is getting so much ice time, not simply pushing the issue under the rug and saying "well as long as they're winning..." The more Beagle plays, the longer these games get drawn out. The less the Caps score. The less confident they feel about scoring. The more they hold their sticks too tight and clang off post after post after post. The more time they are playing one goal games and blowing two goal leads. The more time they are scrutinized about why Ovechkin isn't playing more.

If the Caps were playing the Senators, or Devils, or even the Flyers at this point, maybe it wouldn't matter as much. But going against two of the top defenses and goalies in the league, and completely shutting down the offense with one goal leads and sky-rocketing Jay Beagle's ice time is a strategy for losing. Lucky for the Caps, nobody told Holtby. But somebody needs to tell that to Hunter. The Caps need to play to win, play to score more than one or two goals in a game, play to use all of their talent rather than holding them back. Beagle needs to actually play fourth-line minutes, or else this team will lose. Winning with this strategy could very well be the worst thing for the team, because this is an organization that undervalues goalies. They undervalued the contribution that Halak had in beating the Caps, and they undervalue the contribution that Holtby has now in getting them this far. They are goalies who win DESPITE the play of their team and the play of the opposition, not because of it. Washington nearly matched the Rangers shot-for-shot last night. Imagine if Semin and Knuble had more TOI than Beagle did. Would it have even gone to triple OT? Would the Caps have scored that elusive second goal? Who knows? I'll tell you what, Beagle didn't help. It's very hard to score when you are the only player on the team who does not take a shot on goal.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Caps-Bruins Game 4 (and beyond) Preview

Here's the deal. Not only can the Caps win this game, and ultimately win this series, but they should. They are, in terms of players and talent, the better team. Chara is a four-time Norris trophy finalist, one-time winner, and will probably be nominated again this year. Tim Thomas is an all-star, Vezina-winning, NHL record-setting, Stanley-Cup winning, Conn Smythe-winning goalie. We all know that, and yes, they are intimidating players to be up against in any game, let alone a tight playoff series. But beyond them, if you match up player-for-player... the Caps are better.

One thing that helps, of course, is the fact that Boston is without the underrated Nathan Horton, arguably their most well-rounded forward. He's cracked 30 goals once before. But let's match up (healthy) top-player for top-player here:

Tyler Seguin, Patrice Bergeron, and David Krejci vs. Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alex Semin

Remember, Russians disappear in the playoffs. Wait...
Seguin is probably Boston's most skilled forward, and he is only 20 years old and in his sophomore season. Bergeron is clearly their top center, and is absolutely a very skilled player. Krejci is another skilled player who was nearly a point-per-game player in last year's Cup-winning run. Bergeron is the only one to crack the 30 goal mark, ever. Seguin had 29 this year. All three of the Caps' players here can just about humiliate the Boston trio in terms of offensive production, skill, and overall hockey sense. Boston definitely is more of a physical, defensive-minded, agitating team than the Caps are, and Bergeron and Krejci can certainly play that game well. But Ovi is one of the league's hardest and most frequent hitters. Backstom plays both sides of special teams with great success. Semin? His defensive abilities are vastly underrated and have been put on display in this series. Washington's big three may not be known for defense, but that doesn't mean they can't play it. Oh, and how about point totals so far? In three games, Seguin, Bergeron, and Krejci have combined for one assist. The Caps' guys have a goal apiece and three combined assists. It's no question, the "Young Gun" forwards are superior players.

Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, and Andrew Ferrence vs. Mike Green, Roman Hamrlik, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner

He actually forgot to start his playoff
beard until Monday morning. It made him sad.
Chara may very well win the Norris trophy this year. But let's not forget that Mike Green is a two-time finalist for the award as well, narrowly losing to Chara one of those years. Obviously none of the Caps players are as big as Chara, and honestly, none of them are as physical as Chara and Seidenberg are. But after Boston's top pairing, things trail off dramatically. While Green and Hamrlik may not be quite as good as Chara and Seidenberg, they are not a pairing to be overlooked, either. Hammer's regular season was undoubtedly a disappointment, but his time with Green has been productive and effective. Boychuk and Ferrence, on the other hand, are respectable defensemen, but do not hold up against the Caps other top-pairing in Carlzner. Carlson, like Hamrlik, had a disappointing season. Nobody really thinks a whole lot less of him, though. Everyone knows what he is capable of, especially when paired with long-time partner Karl Alzner. Alzner seemingly gets better with every game, and is one of the most solid defensive defensemen in the league. When paired with Carlson, they can block shots, hit, pass, and occasionally even score. Boychuk and Ferrence have specifically been targeted by Hunter and the Caps as weak points to be exploited by Washington's skilled players. They aren't bad players, but they aren't as good as the Caps. And since Chara and Seidenberg can't play all 60 minutes, especially when they are targeting/being targeted by Ovechkin, the Caps' top-four defensemen win out here.

Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, and Rich Peverly vs. Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson, and Troy Brouwer

Marchand, seen here, avoiding John Carlson's explosive sneeze
This is where Boston's "agitating" players come in, and they are among the best at what they do. Look only to Backstrom's tussle with Peverly and subsequent Game 4 suspension for that. Lucic is a pest, flying around the ice targeting players when the refs aren't looking, drawing retaliatory penalties, and getting players off their game. Marchand can frequently be seen flopping on the ice looking for his missing leg, arm, or head after being tapped on the shoulder. Despite all that, these guys can play hockey, too. Lucic and Marchand regularly score 20+ goals. But don't think that Troy Brouwer won't level any of these three if given the opportunity. Or that Brooks Laich won't block a shot, then pass it up the ice, then drive through them to the net, and then score the rebound goal. Or that Johansson won't absolutely blow by them at some point (although he will probably leave a drop pass for one of them, or pass instead of shoot, or shoot instead of pass...). There's a reason that Laich was given his contract. There's a reason why the Caps traded a first-round pick for Brouwer's negotiating rights. I may be a big critic of Johansson, but I know he has the speed and skill to develop into a top player. The other guys in the Bruins' top-six may be among the best at what they do, but so are the Caps' guys. At worst, I think it's an even matchup.

Tim Thomas et al. vs. ???

Right now, it's Braden Holtby. Before, it was Vokoun or Neuvirth. The fact remains is that Boston's goaltending probably wins out against the Caps. But Holtby has proven himself to be Thomas' equal through three games. Vokoun is out. Neuvirth is absolutely the worst of the three, and it would be a travesty if he starts a game in the playoffs, regardless of how far the Caps go. I don't care if nobody else listens to me, but Neuvirth is not a starting goalie. He wasn't last year, but they gave him the job anyway. He has been outperformed by every other goalie the Caps have started since Neuvirth played his first NHL game. That's just a fact. You cannot argue with it. You can argue about team play, about who "earned" a win, about who the team trusts, about sustainability, bad bounces, what have you. But you cannot argue that Neuvirth has outplayed Vokoun, Holtby, Varlamov, or even Theodore. Oh yeah, Thomas vs. these guys? Thomas wins it, unfortunately.

And then the rest...

Boston's supporting cast of bottom-six forwards and bottom-pairing defensemen features luminaries such as Gregory Campbell, Joe "Oh-No" Corvo, Benoit (balls) Pouliout, and resident "Holy crap he's still playing?!" player Brian Rolston (filling in for Mark Recchi). Many of the Caps' "bottom six" forwards routinely fill in on the top two lines, including veteran Mike Knuble, Jason Chimera and Mathieu "Remember that time I scored a hat trick against Boston when Ovi and Backstrom were out and then skated under five minutes in Game Three because I blew an assignment one time and my asshat coach decided that was worth over-shifting the rest of the team?" Perreault. And their "bottom pair" defensemen? That'd be Dennis Wideman and Jeff Schultz, with a healthy dose of rookie Dmitri Orlov on the side(lines). Oh, right, Wideman and Schultz have routinely played top-pair minutes this season and in the past. In terms of roster depth, I think it is more than fair to say that the Caps have the Bruins pretty well owned.

So what's the problem?

Hint: it's something in this picture
The problem actually has a name. That problem is Dale Hunter. I actually wanted him to replace Bruce Boudreau back before it was cool (a.k.a June and July). I was wrong. Hunter has proven himself to be an enigmatic-at-best, wants-nothing-more-than-to-return-to-London-at-worst coach. Mike Knuble, one of the most valuable assets that Caps have in any playoff series, continues to ride the pine, only likely coming into the lineup now that Backstrom has to miss a game. Jeff Halpern, former Washington Capitals captain and faceoff extraordinaire, is also on the bench. Who is skating in place of these two? Keith Aucoin and Jay Beagle. In the past I have thought that Aucoin should be in the NHL after years of tearing it up in the AHL. And he probably still should be. Just not in Washington. Jay Beagle has actually had a pretty good series, in the sense that he is only a -1, has eight shots, and is decimating Boston in the faceoff circle. But he is averaging over SIXTEEN MINUTES A GAME. I put that in caps because I wish I could shout it directly into your ear. Jay Beagle, who set career highs this year with 41 games played and FIVE points, is averaging over SIXTEEN MINUTES A GAME in the playoffs while Mike Knuble and Jeff Halpern sit on the bench. Halpern has a career low of 16 points while playeing in his third-fewest regular season games at sixty-nine. He also has a career-low shooting percentage of 6.3%, but was fifth in the league in faceoff percentage. So, at his worst, he has over three time as many points as Beagle while being one of the premier faceoff guys in the league. Beagle can play his heart out, and his best is not as good as Halpern's worst. But Halpern doesn't decide if he is in the game. Beagle doesn't decide to play 16 minutes a game. Hunter decides that. Hunter decides that he would rather have the undersized Keith Aucoin play more minutes than undersized Mathieu Perreault, despite the fact that Perreault has undoubtedly shown more skill and success than Aucoin in addition to being more familiar with the players on the team. He has decided that Mike Knuble really isn't all that, and that Aucoin should additionally get a spot over #22.

The Caps are the better team. But as long as Hunter continues to make horrible decisions in terms of personnel and ice-time management, they don't have a chance. Unless Beagle and Aucoin are replaced with their veteran, skilled counterparts, unless Perreault and Ward are freed up to do what they can do best, unless Schultz (who I still like, just not in this series) is replaced with Orlov (who is infinitely more skilled as a rookie than Erskine can ever hope to be), the Capitals will lose this series. They will probably lose Game Four. But if the best players are put out there, then despite all of Hunter's other bad decisions, the Caps can and should win this series. They have the better players.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Caps - Bruins Game 1 Preview

As usual with these things, I am cutting it a little close to game time here, so I'll keep it brief.

The Caps took the regular seasons series 3-1, including a 5-3 win that saw Mathieu Perreault get his first career hat trick. It was one of only nine times that the Capitals scored five or more goals, including a 5-4 OT win against Anaheim. Oh, and that was a game where Ovechkin, Green, and Backstrom were all suspended or injured. Tonight, of course, all of the "Young Guns" will be healthy and in the game. This will be the first time that Boston has had to face such a scenario.

Braden Holtby's first NHL appearance was against the Boston, making four saves on four shots in 10:09 of ice time on November 5, 2010. It is only fitting that his first NHL playoff appearance would be against the same team. The kid has amazing talent, and in limited appearances has posted a record of 14-4-3 with three shutouts since last season. Skilled rookie goalies are nothing to sneeze at in the playoffs, as quite a few luminaries have gone on to make their mark in the league. He has played well when called upon in the past, the team has expressed the utmost faith in him, and I join them.

Of course, the Caps are playing on the road. This is the playoffs. The Bruins are the defending Cup champs, and have been playing great hockey down the stretch. All-star players Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara are two of the most formidable names for offensive-minded players, and this team knows how to win. They are a very physical team, and they will have no problem throwing their weight around tonight now that the league has pretty much OK'd everything.

Like I say, the playoffs are all about matchups. As little faith as I have had in this team for the past year, I absolutely believe that they can and will win this series... so long as Hunter doesn't coach like a fool. It's nice that he has been giving ice time to Jay Beagle, a very hard-working player that has endeared himself to many a Caps faithful over the years. Keith Aucoin has also been doing fairly well with increasing responsibility after years languishing in the AHL as one of that league's top offensive players. But to play them at all, barring injury, in the playoffs is simply a laughable notion when you have Jeff Halpern and Mike Knuble sitting on the bench instead of those two guys. If both of them are healthy and on the bench, the Caps lose this series, and rightfully so. They are currently both expected to be scratches. There is no reason to sugar coat this: benching them is absolutely moronic. It's how you lose games and cost people their jobs. Halpern + Knuble = a win tonight and a series win in six. If they don't get ice time, and the remarkably less skilled and experienced players get their spots, the Caps lose tonight and the series in no more than five. It won't be the goaltending, it won't be the system, it will be the coach making bone-headed, stupid, moronic moves that only...well, nobody who should be coaching at this level would make this mistake. So here's hoping that Hunter either gets his head on straight or that the current lineup plays above the abilities of the bottom six.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Looking at Possible First Round Matchups

So the Caps have clinched a playoff spot with the win over Florida and a Buffalo loss. Now what? Can a team that still has no identity, no set lineup, and is very likely being forced to roll with their AHL goalie tandem due to late injuries have a shot at surviving the first round? Well, as all Capitals fans SHOULD know by now, the NHL playoffs might as well be a whole separate season. Playing styles change, and team matchups matter a lot more when you have to see the same players and coaches for as many as seven games in a row. Adjustments and style adaptations are made more rapidly than the regular season. It helps to have a leg up on the other team to start a series, whether it's a morale issue or your players' strengths simply match up best against the other guys'.

Look back to Montreal for that lesson: the Habs were one of the few teams that Washington struggled against (read: at all) during the 09-10 season. A combination of an unconscious goaltender and incredible shot-blocking by the Canadiens led to an historic upset in the first round. Matchups, people, that's where I'm going with this. In 09-10, the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference lost in the first round, and the 7th and 8th seeds ended up playing to see who would go for the Cup. Nothing is guaranteed, and home ice can mean zilch if another team has your number and knows how to beat you. When it's all said and done, you can really only get one extra game at home, and the advantage is all about whether you win the first two games and crush the visitors' souls in the process. With all that said, before Saturday's plethora of action, here are your possible first round matchups:
  • 1st seed Rangers vs. 8th seed Capitals (1-2-0, 70 SF, 93 SA, 9 GF, 10 GA, 12.5 PP%, 91.7 PK%):

    Obviously the season series has yet to be decided, but this is your most likely matchup, as it will occur if both Ottawa and Florida get at least one point in their final games. And really, the numbers don't look too bad. Yes, the Caps did lose two of the three games, but despite being outshot by 23, the Rangers have only scored one more goal than our boys in red. The special teams numbers also favor the Caps, and with Backstrom and Green both healthy, the good news there could keep up. Throw in the fact that the Caps defeated the Rangers in five games last year, and seven two years before that, and you begin to see that things are a bit more even than they appear. History absolutely matters in the playoffs. Mental toughness goes a long way, and knowing that a lot of the guys you're playing against were directly responsible for your mid-April tee times two of the past three seasons will weigh on you. The final game of the regular season could just be the beginning of a best-of-eight rather than a best-of-seven. I honestly believe the Caps could win in six games, barring any further injuries to key players.
  • 2nd seed Bruins vs. 7th seed Capitals (3-1-0, 112 SF, 123 SA, 13 GF, 12 GA, 16.7 PP%, 87.5 PK%):

    If the Caps win their last game, the Panthers get a point, and the Senators lose in regulation, this will be your matchup. Despite what I have been seeing for the past 24 hours, I think this is absolutely the best possible matchup for this year's team. The Caps have had Boston's number for years now. Tim Thomas' career numbers against the team may be impressive (14-5-3 with a GAA of 2.46 and a .923 save % in 23 games vs. the Caps; h/t to Japers' Rink for the numbers), but he is 6-4-2 over the last four seasons, including his 3-0-0 record in his record-setting season last year. Our secondary scorers match up very well against this team, most notably Mathieu Perreault, who recorded his first career hat trick against Boston and Thomas in a 5-0 rout. They may be last year's Cup champions, but that doesn't always hold a lot of sway. Again, I think the Caps could win this in six, but having Holtby in net (who I'd still rather have in net any day than the league's 10th-worst goalie in Neuvirth) coupled with the Bruins 7-2-1 record in games 72-81 obviously has me a bit worried. But so does this whole season. Even still, I'd rather see this matchup in the first round rather than...
  • 3rd seed Capitals vs. 6th seed Devils (1-1-2, 85 SF, 100 SA, 8 GF, 13 GA, 0 PP%, 88.9 PK%):

    Should the Capitals defeat the Rangers and Florida loses to Carolina in regulation, the Caps will squeak out another Southeast Division title and claim the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Their opponents in this scenario will be the New Jersey Devils, a team against whom they have their second worst goal differential (Buffalo outscored the Caps by eight goals this season), and have failed to cash in on 14 power play opportunities. They are the only team in the East that the Caps have failed to score a powerplay goal against, although both teams have scored once while shorthanded. Johan Hedburg allowed two goals against on 40 shots in 125 minutes of ice time against DC, and likely starter Martin Brodeur... well, he is Martin Brodeur. Parise is playing for a huge contract in the offseason, and Kovalchuk will want to show up his fellow Russian stars. The Devils got better against the Caps as the season went on, losing the first game 3-1, then winning in two shootouts before shutting out Washington completely 5-0 last month. While this could have the makings of a fantastic playoff series, with the last minute division champs in Washington playing against the highly skilled and well-decorated Devils and Russian superstars as far as the eye can see, not to mention the home ice advantage Washington would enjoy, I have a feeling Ovechkin and company would be breaking out their clubs after just five games. I just do not see a lot of upside to this series. Home ice advantage can be nice, but like I said, it's all about matchups, and this just looks like an ugly one to me.
So, what is a team to do? Jumping up in the standings requires outside help and a win against the top seed, and you have to think that the Rangers would rather face slumping Florida or Ottawa than Washington. The Panthers and Senators are the only teams with double-digit overtime losses in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and taking longer to lose in the playoffs gets you sent packing just as quickly. In fact, the Caps have more regulation and overtime wins than Florida, Ottawa, and New Jersey. Ottawa plays before the Caps and Rangers, and Florida gets going a half hour after the puck drops at Madison Square Garden. Scoreboard watching will be rampant, and may decide if one or both coaches consider playing their B-squads at some point during the game. Because it's all about matchups, folks.

Shameless plugging time! Before the Caps played the Panthers the other day, I recorded my first-ever podcast with my friend Pamitha for his fantasy sports site The Fantasy Brokers. Nothing says vanity like saying "Hey, listen to me talk for 45 minutes!" So for those of you who want to hear me discuss my blog and thoughts on key players from the 2011-2012 NHL season and what is going on with the Caps, if you have secretly wondered what I sound like on the phone, or if you just want proof that I actually have a friend, check out his site and our podcast.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Final Four - Looking at the Caps Last Four Games

The Capitals are making a surprising late-season push. Surprising, generally, for all the wrong reasons. Just about everyone (except me) had this year's team pegged for the top, a Stanley Cup favorite. Instead, with their 79th game of the season coming tonight against the Canadiens, they are in a tight battle for a playoff spot, courtesy of the NHL's worst division. As it stands, Washington sits in 8th place, two points out of 7th (although Ottawa has a game in hand), and four points behind third-place Florida. To make matters worse, they are tied in points with 9th place Buffalo, holding the ROW tiebreaker. This absurd reality goes to show just how lucky the Capitals have been: in a better, if not more competitive, division, things could be even worse, seeing as they only have a 11-7-4 record against their division rivals. With only four games remaining, each point is extremely important. So let's look at what is in store for them:

March 31 (Tonight): Montreal @ Washington
  •  Montreal sits last place in the Eastern Conference, and have only scored a single goal against the Caps in three games. However, they have managed to hold Washington to a lone powerplay goal in 13 opportunities, an Eastern Conference stat bested only by the 0 for 14 powerplay shutout against the Devils this season. Not to mention that season villain Rene Bourque is now on the Habs, and news came this morning that season hero Nicklas Backstrom will make his (surely triumphant) return to the lineup this evening, and there are plenty of reasons the Capitals should easily win this game. A loss here, quite honestly, would just about crush playoff hopes and any remaining morale on the team. If they can't beat the worst team in the conference, a team they have absolutely dominated, on a night their best player from the first 38 games returns... Let's just not think about it and expect a solid win.
April 2: Washington @ Tampa Bay
  • Last year's Stanley Cup Eastern Conference playoff finalists, who, as we all remember in our nightmares, swept the Caps in the second round, are in 12th place. They are nine points behind Washington, and only five ahead of Montreal. The season series record is 3-1-1. Again, there is no reason to believe the Capitals should or will lose this game, other than it has become the norm to expect the unexpected failures this season. Don't kid yourselves, though, the Lightning will absolutely be looking to play the part of spoiler. Steven Stamkos has all but locked up the Richard Trophy, and this is still a talented roster. It'll be hard-fought and close.
April 5: Florida @ Washington
  • Talk about your big games. At this point, only four possible points will remain for Washington, and two will be available against the division leading team, who, as of right now, they sit four points behind. Depending on how things play out, this could be a game to take third in the conference, setting up a first round match against either Philly (1-2-1) or New Jersey (1-1-2). A loss would just about certainly put third out of reach, assuming the previous two games have not already put them out of reach of the playoffs to begin with. They should still win this game, as the Panthers are realistically an inferior team, and the 3-2-0 record against them speaks somewhat to that fact. Special teams will likely play a big factor in the game, since the Caps are clicking in at a 25% PP conversion rate against Florida, while the Panthers are coming in with about a 21% conversion rate against Washington. Should be very exciting.
April 7: Washington @ New York Rangers
  •  Even at the last game of the season, against the likely top seed in the league, the two points will matter. Buffalo could still be tied with Washington, or even ahead. Same goes for Florida, or hell, even Ottawa. This is absolutely a playoff game, and even in the metaphorical sense. Really, this may be the first of a best-of-eight series for the Caps and Rangers, as the most likely matchup right now will be 1st seed Rangers against 8th seed Capitals. The season series is at 1-2-0, although Washington has only been outscored by one goal. This game, and a likely series, will be a lot closer than the standings and points would imply, especially if Backstrom, Green, and Vokoun are all healthy and at 100%. Semin and Ovechkin have returned to form of late. Johansson has finally been moved to the wing, and has seen his scoring increase. They only have three games before this one, but we should finally see a set lineup, with healthy players playing at their season best. Barring another injury, the Capitals really should win this one.

There is no real reason the Caps should not come out of these last four games with at least six points, if not all eight. Aside from that, they just about have to come out of these games with at least six points... if not all eight. As little faith as I have had in this team all season, and especially as of late, I feel pretty good about the next week. How about you?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Last-Minute Trade Deadline Thoughts

The trade deadline, as of the time I am writing this, is roughly 30 hours away. Our boys in red are currently one point out of the playoffs with 20 games to go, and there is no timetable for number one center Nicklas Backstrom's return. With Jeff Carter and Antoine Vermette traded out of Columbus already, the pickings are slim for a top-notch second line center that could also fill in on the first line while Nicky gets healthy. Someone that has both size and offensive prowess, not to mention the ability to win faceoffs and get off some good passes. The big problem is that the Capitals have what amounts to no cap space. They cannot even afford the league minimum salary for a call-up at this point. Good centers that fit the mold above are going to cost somewhere in the range of $3.5-6 million per year.

Many people have floated the names of potential suitors with the implications that they could possibly play well along Alexander Semin, possibly being a "Sasha-whisperer" in the vein of Jason Arnott (who really should have just been kept on the team instead of...well, we'll get into that briefly). The problem with that line of thinking is that it assumes two things: 1) That Alex Semin will be with the team after this season, and 2) That Alex Semin will be with the team after Monday afternoon. Semin is the second-highest paid player on the team behind Ovechkin and tied with Backstrom, and is also the highest paid pending-UFA in the entire National Hockey League. In fact, the only soon-to-be free agent with a higher salary is pending-RFA Shea Weber out of Nashville. What this means is that in any trade involving a non-Weber RFA or UFA player, moving Alex Semin automatically frees up the necessary cap space.

Semin has been roughly a point-per-game player since Dale Hunter took over, and quite possibly the team's best player during that stretch as a result. With Semin, though, this is not unexpected. Neither was his lack of production in the waning days of the Boudreau Era. Like it or not, his future with the team is and always has been hazy at best. Signing a center to play alongside him for years to come could be a big mistake if Semin ends up not being in the teams plans after all. The first thing McPhee needs to do is decide how long he intends to keep the "other Alex," and then that should give him an idea of what his options at center are.

If he does decide to keep Semin, salary cap space has to be freed up via salary dumps, a.k.a trading for picks and prospects. To match Semin's salary, several players would have to move. Three players with a salary cap total of $7 million, just $300k more than Semin's hit, were scratched for both of the last two games: RW Mike Knuble and defensemen John Erskine and Roman Hamrlik. The writing on the wall suggests that these are the three that are most likely to move. Erskine being traded is not that surprising, as he has been knocked down to 8th on the depth chart on a good day. Knuble is approaching 40 and has been, for reasons that are unknown and would boggle the mind if they were, relegated primarily to 4th line duty this season and has seen a corresponding dip in offense. Boston and San Jose would love to have him, the former because of his history on the team and the latter to reunite him with Joe Thornton, but really, any team in the league would love to steal him from McPhee, as he immediately makes any team a better team, as long as they give him the top minutes he so clearly deserves and needs. Hamrlik was acquired just this past summer on a two-year deal, and has not lived up to expectations. Recently, he has shown frustration with Hunter, and appears ready to pack his bags at a moment's notice with a smile on his face. One thing all these guys have in common is that they want to play hockey, and they are not playing as much as expected in Washington.

If these players are all moved for picks/prospects, the Semin decision can once again be held off until the offseason, and just about any player can be picked up by 3:00 p.m. Monday, regardless of what GMGM gives back in return. But the Capitals best bet would be to pick up a player who can succeed without Semin as well as with him. What it really comes down to is this: for the next 30 hours or so, Alex Semin is the most important player on the Washington Capitals, and George McPhee needs a damn good crystal ball to figure out why.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Captaining the Caps

Let me preface this by saying I have never played hockey. I've never played on a varsity team, but I have played on JV squads in other sports (wrestling and rugby). So while I can't say that I know exactly what the most desirable traits are in the captain of a hockey squad, I have at lease some exposure to team sports and captaincy.

It is my opinion that Ovechkin should relinquish the "C" to Brooks Laich this offseason. Doing so right now would merely add more turmoil and misplaced focus to an already fragile Caps squad, but I do think it would be for the best once the season is over.

I am not saying, by any means, that Ovechkin is not a leader on the Capitals, nor that he is an ineffective leader. I simply believe that he is not the best leader on the team. What I do believe is that Ovechkin is usually one of the best leaders on the ice in terms of passion for the game and skill. His numbers may be slumping as of late, and people have questioned his effort accordingly. But watch his reaction when anybody on the team scores. Watch his face when the team is down. Watch him absolutely blow someone up because they dared lay a heavy hit on him. This is a guy who cares about winning and about his team, regardless of how many coaches rotate in and how many talking heads say otherwise. You will never convince me otherwise.

What I am convinced of is that these alone are not the only qualifications for leading as team captain. Brooks Laich embodies those qualities a little better. There is a reason that his name comes up every single time someone questions who should be captain, just as talks of who should be captain come up every time he gives a presser. It is no secret that his voice is one of the loudest and most respected in the locker room, along with that of Mike Knuble. Unlike Laich, though, Knuble does not have a fresh six-year deal that clearly pays him as much for his leadership skills as his hockey skills.

On the ice, Laich is a leader as well. For all of Ovechkin's skills, you probably won't see him suiting up as a center one day, left wing the next, and then filling in on defense next week. Laich is an all-around player. As much as I love Ovi, he just doesn't fit that description. I think the Great 8 is the best player on the team, but that the best player on the team does not necessarily have to be the captain.

The L.A. Kings chose Dustin Brown, a 20-goal two-way forward as their captain. The Penguins chose Sidney Crosby, who (good lord I hate saying this) established himself as the best player in the league when he is healthy. The Kings have plenty of talent, plenty of players who have more offensive talent than Brown, especially now that they have Mike Richards and Jeff Carter on the team to join Anze Kopitar, but Brown is the guy who better exemplifies what they need in a captain. Part of me thinks that the Caps looked at the Penguins a little too much when they chose their best player as their captain. But who else would they have chosen? Nobody else remotely worthy of the role, aside from Evgeni Malkin, was really guaranteed to be there for a substantial period of time, and the Penguins were going through as much of a rebuild as the Caps.

When Chris Clark was injured for the better part of three seasons before ultimately being traded while still holding the captaincy, it made a lot of sense to make Ovi his replacement. He was on top of the world, a whirlwind force on the ice, and the face of the franchise. Laich wasn't guaranteed to be around, because the Caps were still forming their new identity. Whether Ovechkin was truly ready for the role is a whole different story, and one that none of us who are not close to him personally can ever truly attest to. What can be attested to now is that Laich is the guy that many fans and much of the media look to as the true leader and heart of the team off the ice, and as a more than capable player and leader on the ice. He is the guy who runs warm-ups, and has for five years.

Aside from Laich being the guy I think would be the best captain for the team right now, especially through turmoil and regime change, I think it could possibly be better for Ovechkin right now, too. Much has been made of Olie Kolzig's comments that Ovi needs to get back to his younger years and back off from his "rock star" image. I don't think those comments are meant to be nearly as negative as many have made them out to be. I think it is more a call for him to remove distractions and focus on his game, to not get quite so caught up in all the pressures of his life and being pulled in 100 different directions from the team, the league, the coaches, the media, the sponsors, the fans, and everyone else. Whether or not it is a phantom correlation (X and Y appear correlated, but only because Z is happening at the same time), Ovechkin's offensive production has plummeted since taking on the captain's role. Removing one more pressure from his life could arguably help him regain his focus, helping his production and by proxy, the team. Admittedly, that may be a bit of a stretch, but it is still a factor that should be considered.

If the Capitals could have co-captains, I would be 100% behind Ovechkin and Laich sharing the role. But since the NHL does not allow teams to have co-captains, I think that Laich should have a shot starting next season. Again, this is really nothing against Ovechkin, but is instead praise for Laich and recognition that the team is going through changes one way or another. A different captain may help facilitate that change.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Different Look at the Trade Deadline

Much has been written, if not too much, about the looming trade deadline and what it could mean for the Washington Capitals. We are all playing armchair GM, watching twitter and our websites of choice for rumors, reading way too much into healthy scratches, forecasting what could be the next big move, etc. I am just as guilty as the next, if not more so, of all this. I have been very hesitant to write much recently, because I am not the type who likes to say the same things over and over again, and I found that was the road I was heading down.

For what it's worth, and to get it out of the way, I think the main, if not only, move the Caps should make is to acquire Jeff Carter at nearly whatever price is necessary. If the only knock against him is his attitude while playing on the worst team in the league, that's fine with me. I'll take a 40 goal scoring center who can win faceoffs and play both sides of special teams and has a history of playing on a more physical team if his worst trait is that he is bitter about being moved from a Cup-contender to a loser team without so much as a heads up. I don't see him as the team cancer that Jagr was, and I do see his contract as a good thing, because it is increasingly difficult to get someone with his skill level for under $6 million, let alone locked in at a little over five.

With that out of the way, we move on to the point of this post. In law school, you're taught to try to take a slightly different look at things in order to find the best outcome for you and your client. So how about this: rather than figure out who McPhee should acquire, and who/what he should give up in order to do so, why not start even more basic and look at who needs to stay?

I will break it down into two groups. "Absolutely must stay" means that shy of being offered a combination Malkin, Datsyuk, a Sedin, and/or Weber, there is no way these guys should be moved now or in the next three years. "Too valuable" means these are the players who compliment the stars, have versatile roles, or otherwise have some serious value to the team that while it would not destroy the team to lose one of them, Slapshot would be walking around with a limp for a while - although some of them could walk in the summer and be replaced. If you don't see a player's name, then he can be considered for whatever fantastical trade you wish. Some of this will seem obvious, some you may vehemently disagree with, but I urge you to think about it.

Absolutely Must Stay
  • Alex Ovechkin (53GP, 23G, 21A, 138 hits) - Obviously. The Captain, the face of the franchise, one of the league's premier stars. Whatever the reason behind his nearly two year long slump, he is not going anywhere.
  • Nick Backstrom (38GP, 13G, 29A) - The other obvious choice. One of the top centers in the league, regardless of how low he is ranked on some analysts' top players lists, he is almost as important to the Capitals as Ovechkin.
  • John Carlson (55GP, 7G, 20A, RFA) - His sophomore season is looking a little rough at times, but that is partially because we have set the bar so high for our Real American Hero. His potential upside is so high for a player of his youth, and he could easily grow into one of the organization's greatest defensemen. Along with the next two guys on the list, you're looking at the foundation of what can and should be one of the best defensive squads in the league.
  • Karl Alzner (55GP, 1G, 12A, +15) - Ever-so-slightly more seasoned than his pal Carlson, Alzner is developing into one of the top shutdown defensemen in the league. The contract he signed should have gotten his agent fired, but it showed some loyalty to the team, and without him right now, our defense is probably done for.
  • Mike Green (10GP, 3G, 3A, RFA) - This is where people start arguing with me. I stand by the fact that he was nominated for the Norris Trophy in back-to-back years, and that was before he rounded out the defensive aspect of his game. Getting him back healthy is incredibly important, and you just do not let go of one of the league's top defensemen solely because he had a string of bad luck with pucks and elbows to the noggin and an awkward fall or two. The Islanders would never let go of Mark Streit for those reasons, and neither should the Caps ever let go of Green. A pay cut for the next season or two is almost certainly in order, but he needs to get that paycheck from Washington and not somewhere else.
  • Brooks Laich (55GP, 10G, 18A) - McPhee essentially put him in this category with his most recent contract, and it was a move I totally agreed with. Laich might not always put up the most dazzling numbers, and he will never reach superstar status, but if you are looking for the heart of the Caps, you're looking for Brooks Laich. Currently the most versatile guy on the team, he has played all skating positions at some point this season, including a brief stint on the blueline. There aren't many guys in the league who can do what he does and maintain a high level of play throughout. He's a keeper.
  • Dmitry Orlov (37GP, 1G, 7A, 57 hits) - A somewhat unexpected permanent addition to the roster, Orlov has shown himself to be more than capable of handling the NHL in his rookie season. He's still prone to the occasional gaffe, but his stick-handling and physicality are top-notch, and he is only going to get better. With Carlzner and Green, you're looking at a very solid and dangerous group for years to come.
  • The Prospects: Braden Holtby (G), Evgeny Kuznetsov (F), Stanislav Galiev (F) - Holtby, I believe, is the goalie of the future for the Caps squad, at least if you're looking only within the organization. He has struggled a bit in Hershey, but showed last season that he is capable of greatness. Kuznetsov has been making us drool here in the States while he embarrasses so many over in the KHL. I'm also going with the unconventional choice of Galiev over fan-favorite Cody Eakin. He has been very public not only with his desire to play for Washington, but for the desire to earn the spot, too. He can score and hit, and that's just my kind of player. In an organization that is low on top-six centers but fairly heavy on guys that can play on the bottom-six, I don't see Eakin being as valuable as a guy like Galiev in the long haul.
Too Valuable
  •  Dennis Wideman (55GP, 10G, 28A, UFA) - The team's only All-Star representative to attend the festivities, third on the team in points, and third in the NHL in points for defensemen, he has endeared himself to the Caps organization and the fans. What keeps him from the must-stay list is partially due to how crowded I have already made that group of blueliners. Wideman's value is as an offensive defenseman, value the team already has with pending-RFAs Carlson and Green. Orlov, too, has shown some offensive upside. In the long haul, Wideman is not essential. His season has probably earned him a raise from almost $4 million he got this year, and while it would suck to have him walk in the offseason for no return when the Caps are likely unable to give him what he wants, losing him at the trade deadline could prove even more disastrous.
  • Matt Hendricks (51GP, 3G, 4A, 72PIM, 128 hits) - Locked in for another year at $825k, Hendricks is a great player at a great value. While he isn't having quite the offensive season he had last year, that was never his reason for making the team in the first place. He is a surprisingly versatile bottom-six forward who is more than capable in the dot, winning 54.5% of his draws this season, and he is not at all afraid to hit and fight. While nobody seems to have informed Dale Hunter, he is also the team's resident shootout specialist, scoring on half of his attempts during his time in DC. He brings a lot of grit to the team while still being a lingering scoring threat, and realistically would not fetch much in return in a trade. With no reason at all to move him, there is every reason to keep him rocking the red.
  • Thomas Vokoun (40GP, 22-13-2, 4 SO, 2.45GAA, .920 SV%, UFA) - Worth far more than the paltry $1.5 million that he got from McPhee this summer, Vokoun really was the best signing of the year for the team. Without him, there is no way the team would even be sniffing the playoffs right now. Unfortunately for us, there is also no way he will stick around for backup-goalie pay. He's getting a little old, but given his consistency over the years he deserves a much bigger paycheck. Parting with him now would be ludicrous, but the Blackhawks, Blues, and even the Flyers have shown that there are a lot of diamonds in the rough out there when it comes to goalies, and you don't have to pay an arm and a leg to get them. Hell, McPhee showed that, himself.
  • Mathieu Perreault (37GP, 9G, 7A, RFA) - Easily the most controversial call I'm making here, Perreault is the last name you will see with a bullet point. Yes, that means that I think Brouwer, Johansson, and Neuvirth could all be replaced or upgraded or traded without significant downside for the team, but I do not think the same could be said for Perreault. I have not exactly hidden my fanboy-dom for our resident small guy, but even I recognize this may be pushing it. Here's the thing, though: he leads the team in even strength goals- and points-per-sixty minutes, and by a significant margin. He has been in the top five for these two metrics nearly the entire season. When he was on a line with Hendricks and Halpern, they scored. When he is on a line with Semin, they score. Perreault is the kind of player that, if you use him properly, will produce and will bring out the best in those around him. He can create plays behind and in front of the net in part because his size allows him to be more nimble than the average player. When not used properly, though, he disappears. Claims of inconsistency focus on the fact that he is not scoring every single game, or that he may go a couple weeks without a goal. I would much rather have that inconsistency than a guy like Beagle who consistently brings virtually nothing to the table. Like Hendricks, though, Perreault would not fetch much in return for any trade. He has shown bursts of remarkable skill, and really has not been a defensiveness weakness on the ice very often, either. Eakin, Aucoin, and Beagle are all less effective in the lineup than Perreault, and MP85 has shown success and chemistry with the top scorers, a feat that even Johansson has had trouble with. Losing Perreault to likely gain a late round draft pick or a permanent AHLer would mean putting someone with less skill and team chemistry in the lineup, and that is something the Caps cannot afford right now.
So there you have it: Five forwards, five defensemen, a goalie, and a handful of prospects. If McPhee goes into fire sale mode over the next two weeks, these are the players I do not think can be moved without compromising the immediate and/or future success of the team. Everyone else is too expensive, too superfluous, too underused, or too ill-fitting to be considered essential in my book. Tell me what you think in the comments below!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Caps @ Pens Recap: 1/22/12

At the end of the final game in the Capitals and Penguins season series, the Capitals were the OT losers, 4-3, rounding out a 2-1-1 record. Both teams were missing top players due to injury and/or illness, but it still managed to live up to a lot of the hype, with the remaining big stars chipping in to make NBC happy. Some thoughts:
  • For those that actually do follow me on Twitter, or that follow Michael Hoffman (@CapsExaminer) and/or Angie Lewis (@LadyHatTrick), or have even read previous posts, you may have picked up on the fact that I am a big fan of Mathieu Perreault, and that I think he is being under-utilized by the Capitals. Well tonight he got possibly the biggest shot of the season thanks to team misfortunes. Backstrom is still out with a head injury, and Marcus Johansson fell ill this weekend, forcing him to miss the game. First-line center duties surprisingly fell to MP85 on a line with Ovechkin and (*gasp*) Mike Knuble against a fierce rivalry on a nationally televised game. How did he do? Skated a season-high 16:22, posted two assists and a +2, and generally looked solid defensively and offensively. His first point came on a beautiful play with Ovechkin and Semin with the team rushing up the ice. A great pass from Ovi led to a quick, hard shot by Perreault, leading to a juicy rebound and a goal for Semin. Possibly just as important, if not noticeable, was a play in the Caps' end where Neuvirth gave up a juicy rebound, only to have Perreault poke it away from the corner of the net and lead a play out of the zone. Here's hoping for more of this kind of performance and ice time for the diminutive forward.
  • Much has been said about the Capitals' offensive issues this season. Not as much has been said about minor victories masking massive underlying issues. Tonight the team got goals from Laich, Ovechkin, and Semin, their three most expensive (healthy) players, and that was fantastic news. What is terrible news is that they only managed 20 shots on goal, their 7th lowest total of the season, and the fourth time this month they have only scraped together 20 or fewer shots on net. Meanwhile, the team has only allowed fewer than 20 shots against one time this month: Jan 3, when the Calgary Flames got 19 on net. While I am absolutely not ready to put much trust in Neuvirth, I am ready to trust Vokoun. I am also ready to trust the defense to limit quality shots on net, even if they are not limiting the quantity of shots. Hopefully a game like this, moreso than the two shutouts last week, will motivate the guys to shoot the puck more. It's one thing to be shut out, or to win a close game. But after an OT loss in a game where both goalies are playing sub-par, you hope the players are saying to themselves: "What if I had taken one more shot?"
  • One of the big differences between Boudreau and Hunter is line-matching. I think Hunter took it a step further today with the lineup today with team-matching. Putting Knuble back on the top line, even if it was only for a short time, and starting Neuvirth were likely both moves made because they have been thorns in the Penguins' sides. Hendricks, Laich, and Brouwer were put together to match Malkin's line with (theoretically) solid defensive play and physicality. It didn't quite work out, but I have some faith that there was a thought process behind the lineups that just about everyone was questioning this morning. 
  • You have to give props where they are due, even if you hate to do it: Malkin and Neal were fantastic tonight. The game-tying goal was the work of a supremely gifted, powerful forward in Malkin. Geno pushed through, quite literally, all five Caps players on the ice, never lost the puck, out-powered Hamrlik up against the boards, and managed to pass it to James Neal for his 26th goal of the season. There's a reason that Malkin was taken one pick after Ovechkin, and he is reminding the league and hockey fans of that this season. Neal is reminding people why everyone in Pittsburgh thought Pens GM Ray Shero had incriminating photographs of Dallas' GM when he was brought to the Penguins. Why do I also find this hopeful? Malkin was plagued by injuries the past couple seasons, only to come back healthy and dominant. Neal was in a massive slump during his time in Pittsburgh last season, only to come back and remain tied with Malkin for 3rd in the league for goals. So, too, can our Young(ish) Guns come back from injuries and slumps to return to form. Here's hoping they do.
  • More on that game-tying goal, specifically Neal's shot placement. There was a lot of traffic in between Neal and Neuvirth, and a lot of action going on in that short distance. He placed it top-shelf, over Neuvirth's left shoulder. Here's the thing about that shot: most Penguins players are going to make that one go in. Bylsma is a great coach, and Neuvirth is not that great of a goalie. He is very predictable, and while I do not have the capabilities to bring up such statistics (@ngreenberg, anyone?), I would venture a guess that about half or more of the goals against Neuvy over his last 30 games have gone in over his glove-side shoulder, and with increasing frequency the later into his career you go. The reason is that, nearly without fail, Neuvirth will always crouch, sticking his right leg out to the middle of the net, whenever a play is coming out from behind the net on his left side. This leaves an opening above his left shoulder, as he positions his glove near his chest when in this position. I am not a coach, nor am I a scout, and I know this. It is not hard to imagine, especially after watching the 24/7 special from last year, that Bylsma is not only aware of this tendency, but specifically coaches his players to make plays and take shots from that area of the ice. This is also the reason why Neuvirth seems to have so many hard-angle and junk shots go in on him. They are not flukes, those are part of a strategy to defeat a young goaltender with mediocre puck tracking skills and bad habits. In fact, it appears that all four goals went in over his left shoulder, although from different spots on the ice and in different situations. Neal's game-tying goal, while a great shot, needs to be recognized more for the implications for Neuvirth's career, and a probable explanation for his horrendous stats this season: good coaches, and therefore good teams, know precisely how to beat him, and this makes him a liability going forward unless he makes immediate changes. The future of the team he is not.
The Capitals picked up a loser point tonight, leaving them one point behind Florida in the Southleast Southeast division, and two points ahead of Toronto to remain in the top eight teams in the conference. The next five games feature the Boston Bruins bookending two important matches against Tampa Bay and Florida, and a still-valuable two points against the Canadiens. Here's hoping for more of the team we saw in the second and third periods, and none of the team we saw in the first. Otherwise, it is going to be an ugly week for those who rock the red.